Sunday, January 17, 2010

Restoration of a Queen-Weathering the Winter

Those of us who get to live in these fantastic old places know that age, deterioration, settling, and the older methods of construction can provide a challenge when it comes to keeping them warm in winter. While central units are great in new houses, the draw from the air returns can really pull in the cold air.  My little desk is in a bay and you know it's bad when I can't wait for the heat to shut off so the draft on my backside will cease!  : )

Since we're having a heat wave (which in most years would be known as "normal January temperatures"), I decided it would be a good time to work on some draft control before the "normal February temperatures" arrive.  While a good deal of the task at hand is temporary until we get to the overhaul of each room, it works wonders.  As we tackle each room, we'll do some caulking and take some more permanent measures, but until then, we don't want to add anything else that needs dug out, scraped, or stripped off.  All this stuff will come back off without too much effort.

So, now that we have established that these are temporary measures, here are the tools I'll be using to do the work.  I noticed I left out the all-important pair of scissors though.  You'll want to have a pair of those.

Things I'll be using:
  1. 1/2" upholstery tacks
  2. 3/8" upholstery tacks
  3. upholstery tack hammer
  4. 1 1/4" nail-on felt weather strip
  5. 3/4" open cell poly weather strip
  6. 3/8" open cell poly weather strip
  7. rope caulk
  8. Philips head screwdriver
  9. flat head screwdriver
  10. needle nose pliers
  11. putty knife
  12. scissors (not shown)
To be able to access several of the leaking parts of the window, the stops had to be removed.  The stop (in case you don't already know) is the piece that is mounted inside the casing of the window (usually covering half of the weight pocket) with the thin back edge of it butting up to the front of the inside of the bottom sash.  This is what holds the window in place (so it doesn't flap back and forth into the room when the wind blows) when the window is open.  In our house, the window stops are also the tracks for the interior shutters.  Luckily, they haven't been caulked in so they are able to be removed quite easily.

Once the stops are removed, I vacuumed the dirt and debris off the surfaces I'd need to apply the stripping to and gave it a washing to remove the dust and coal soot residue.  These areas are raw wood and will need to dry completely before the stripping will stick to them.  If you'd like, it's a good time to seal the raw wood with some shellac or something that will allow the stripping to stick even better.

For the windows that didn't have the top sash caulked into place from the outside, I pulled down the top sash and put a length of the 3/4" stripping across the top of the sash to insulate the gap between the top of the sash and the header when closed.  I don't have a picture of it since I didn't think about it until after the top sash was remounted from the outside and the ladder put away.  Next, I did the same to the bottom surface of the bottom sash.

On the sashes that moved so that I could get to the locking rail between the two sashes, I pulled the top sash down and put a length of 3/4" stripping on the inside of the upper sash to help close the gap between where the two sashes meet and lock. 

I used the 3/4" on these three places for 2 reasons.  One, because it is a wider tape, and two because it's thinner and can be compressed enough to help block small drafts without adding so much bulk that the sashes don't meet at the lock.  The sash locks serve 2 purposes.  One to provide security, but just as importantly to pull the two sashes together to reduce unwanted airflow, so it's important not to add so much bulk that you can no longer lock the window and close that airspace.

With most old houses, sometimes things just aren't what they should be anymore and due to settling or shifting, doors and windows don't always sit properly in their frames.  Such is the case in our foyer, so a different method of insulating the bottom sash had to be used.  For filling larger gaps, you can stack the foam insulation and use the denser closed cell, but since cracks aren't always even, the foam versions don't always make the transition from big crack to little crack without leaving gaps and nonsense.  That's where the nail-on felt comes into play.  I cut a length of felt to fit across the bottom of the sash.  Then I cut a smaller piece that extended into the area where the gap began to narrow.  This is where I used the upholstery tacks and hammer because you have to nail this stuff on.  Because you can pull the felt and feather the end some without breaking, it makes the transition from the large gap to the smaller one more smoothly than with foam.  Ok, so it has a rather festive look about it, but when viewed from the outside of the house, it isn't a blaring white that can be seen a block away, so it has it's perks.

 On the inside of the same window, there was a large gap between the front of the bottom sash and the backside of the sill.  For this area, I used the 3/8" thicker poly stripping and ran it along the top of the felt stripping to close that gap.  When the window closes, that bit of stripping closes the gap.  Like I said, some of this isn't pretty, but feels much better than that single-digit breeze that was blowing in!

With that accomplished, it was time to start with insulating the stops.  First I ran a length of 3/8" stripping down the inside of the frame where the backside of the shutter tracks butt up to the frame.  I used open cell stripping for this as well since the shutter tracks have a header track and if too much bulk is added, the tracks won't fit back into the window frame.  This will also allow the shutters fit and be able to operate in the track if we choose to put the shutter panels back in the tracks later.

I butted the foam up tightly to the bottom window sash but didn't allow it to stick to any part of the sash or it will impede movement or tear off the stripping when we want to open the windows this spring.  Now if you think about it, this piece of stripping won't seem to have much purpose once you consider that most of it will be mashed almost entirely flat by the shutter tracks.  The gaps around the window are much larger than the sliver this foam is going to be when compressed.  Even so, it's going to help since part 2 is to insulate the narrow back edge of the the shutter tracks.


 I only insulated as high as the top of the bottom sash as there is no need to insulate higher than that.  You can see in the picture on the right that the stripping protrudes to the side of the track that will be butted up against the lower sash.  Once both the frame and the track are insulated, I reinstalled them on the window frame pressing first towards the insulation on the frame until it was tight, then pressing firmly towards the sash until it was tight.  Both of these pieces of stripping together should create something like a solid  L-shaped configuration behind the track when compressed thus blocking the drafts from between the track and the frame and between the track and the sash.  Works great and the window still opens if needed but is nice and firm in the frame without being extremely hard to operate.  While the closed cell stripping would have worked nicely on the sash side, it would have been too much pressure to allow the window any flex to move which is why I like the open cell for this. 

So, the window stops and sashes are insulated, but what about the drafts from the chain or rope hardware? Here's a tip I got from 'This Old House' except that they used carpet pad.  Cut a length of felt.  Tuck it under the chain over the wheel.  Pull the chain out a little and let the chain pull the felt into the hole as the weight pulls the chain back into position.  Well, that was too easy.  Why didn't I think of that??? 

Without the flash, the felt isn't really something a passerby would even notice and you can just pull it right back out in the spring.  For the holes at the top of the bottom sash, I just cut a smaller piece of felt, slit it in the middle, put the chain in the slit and stuffed the little "ears" into the gap.  You can use a flat head screw driver to poke it down in there better if needed.

The windows I've been working on currently do not have storm windows on them.  What I found interesting was that every step I finished blocked more and more of the noises outside.  Now we all know that there are gaps in windows, but until you start stopping them up, you really don't realize how much of the outside comes in through them.  It was pretty quiet in the room by the time I got this far.

I couldn't get the foam between where the sashes meet on some of the windows and this is one of the places where the rope caulk comes in handy.  If you've never seen it, it's kind of like clay and comes in a long wide strip that's comprised of individual clay "channels" that can be pulled apart one at a time or several depending on what's needed to fill the void.  Where the sashes meet, I pulled off a single channel and tucked it up to the backside of the inside sash so that it closed the gap between.  It was raining outside by then and you could hear the rain falling from the porch.  By the time I got this stuff pressed against the crack, there was almost no noise at all coming in through the window.  I think it's cool how such a little thing can make such an astronomical difference.  Just imagine what it will be like with properly sealed and installed storm windows! 

While rope caulk isn't very attractive, it's easy to remove in the spring and won't pull off the paint, so I use it a lot when I need a temporary fix for the season.  It works better if it is installed when the surface of where you're putting it is warm.  If you install it when the surface is very cold, it is likely to fall off in a day or so as it isn't really very sticky.  Use a hair dryer to heat the surface where you are installing it a little to alleviate the problem.  It also mashes into the cracks better if it's warm so hair-dry it a little if you want to really cram it in there.  What I like about it is that it can be temporary or permanent, there's no waste involved and that it doesn't get real hard or dry out.  I remember my parents using the stuff on our windows when we were growing up in upstate New York.  Funny the things that stay with you.

One other place that I'm shoving that rope caulk is between the trim.  The construction method used on the newer (1893) part of our house was that the trim was installed first, then the plaster which means there is no wall behind any of the trim so drafts come in where window sill meets window skirt, where window skirt meets baseboard cap and where baseboard cap meets baseboard and baseboard meets the floor and shoe moulding. 

That's a lot of drafts all the way around the room!  As we're working each room, I've been clear caulking these areas once the mouldings have been cleaned and prepped.  It makes a big difference, but we only have 2 rooms done, so for now it's the rope caulk at least around the exterior walls.

From the height of a standard person, you can't see the rope that's between the baseboard and cap and the rope that's between the window skirt and the base cap just looks like part of the wall.  If I hadn't written about it here, Donnie probably never would have noticed and may not still even though he knows where to look.  Without the camera flash, it's really not that disturbing.

Here's a link to a 'This Old House' video about properly insulating working weight pockets that's pretty good.  As we work the remaining rooms, I think I'm going to have to pull off the casings and work the entire pocket.

With that said, here's my speech-Go green!  Stop sending the earth's natural products to the landfill in lieu of products produced from chemicals and filled with gas.  Want those?  Buy a NEW house!  Actually, I should mention somewhere in here that once upon a time, I had a newer house that had vinyl windows.  Truthfully, they were pretty nice, very efficient,  and a dream to clean (since both sashes tilted in).  With that being said, everything has its place and vinyl windows on an old house are like implants on grandma-ouch!  (Thank you Magnaverde for introducing me to that visual!)

There's no reason why original windows and doors can't be as energy efficient as the vinyl, it just takes a little effort and costs a lot less to do it.  With winterizing products, storm windows and some beautiful lined drapery (that contributes to the era-ambiance as well as being totally functional, portable if you move, and less costly than a replacement window plus installation) you can be just as comfortable and energy efficient as a modern home.  What many people don't realize is that cold comes from a variety of sources and you have to investigate them all to be most efficient.  But at the moment, let's stick with just the windows.

Glass is a conductor of heat and cold.  If you put your hand on a window even on a cold day when the sun is shining, it's likely to be warm.  If it's a freezing night, you can feel waves of cold coming from the window.  Unfortunately, people think this is caused by leaking windows and call the replacement place the next morning.  The real culprit is purely the nature of glass and the cold transfer that radiates from it when it's freezing outside.

To live comfortably in an old house, you have to use the logic of the time.  If you look at Victorian houses, you'll never see one with bare windows.  Oh yes, those lace panels and glass curtains are a the epitome of Victorian now aren't they?  Well, try a little experiment on a cold day.  If you have bare windows, put up something as simple and as thin as a sheer curtain (available for less than 10 bucks at WalMart.)  While it won't provide a lot of actual draft protection from gaps, what it will provide is protection from the cold that radiating off the glass whether the windows are old or new.  Those pretty lace curtains so popular with the Victorians were just a fancy way to provide several functions-protection from heat and cold, fading UV rays and privacy.

While in a real Victorian house you might find just lace or sheers (glass curtains) at the windows in summer, you'll also find heavy lined drapery over the lace or sheers in winter.  The reason for this was not purely for the purposes of aesthetics, but for controlling the environment inside the house.  We could learn a lot from the eras before central heat and air allowed us to be able to complain about the inefficiency of windows.  Like I said earlier, when I sit at my little desk, the central unit draws the cold air in through the gaps around the windows and trim.  Replacing the windows won't fix that.  Perhaps it's not that the old stuff is bad, but maybe that we just aren't using it in the manner it was intended.  Make sense?  If we want to use modern conveniences, the whole house has to be prepared like a modern house which means that some of the penetrations that used to let the house "breathe" before modern heat and air was invented need to be addressed.

In the meantime, go Victorian green.  Cover the windows when it's cold with multiple layers for various levels of control.  Open the drapes, lace, and sheers on sunny winter days and take advantage of the solar heat since the UVs aren't as strong in winter.  Close the sheers or lace before the glass starts transferring the cold.  It works the same way in summer if you live in a warm, sunny climate.  Keep the lined drapes up and close them on hot sunny days on the south side during the day and it will keep those rooms much cooler and will result in a more environmentally-friendly cooling bill or at least leave some green in your wallet.  Common sense and taking the time to do the work are the keys to comfort. 

Now, can someone explain to me again the superiority of vinyl replacement windows?

I didn't think so.


  1. Wow, Christine! Thanks for the informative post! I'll need to do this around most of my old windows. I know we're losing a lot of our heat through the cracks. You've explained it so well, and your pictures make it so easy to understand! Our windows are so out-of-whack, and this house has no wall insulation, so anything I can do will help.


  2. NO insulation? How do you stand it??? Our PO blew in insulation when he "renovated" 25 years ago. I doubt that it's as efficient as it should be, but it helps. I just got finished putting the wider open cell foam over the copper strips on the door on my parlor. It's as quite as a tomb in there now. It's wonderful! I have one more door to do then I'm done with the first floor, then I guess I'll tackle the upstairs. Man there are some drafty issues up there!

    I will add for anyone interested that when I went to ACE Hardware to pick up some more supplies, they had different offerings than Lowe's (where I got the original products-all FrostKing brand). ACE carries the rope caulk in BROWN! EXCELLENT! Now it isn't noticeable where I've crammed it into the woodwork. They also carry open and closed cell foam stripping in a dark gray which is nearly invisible on the wood trim. These were all ACE brand products. The rope caulk softer and mashed easier and was stickier than the FrostKing brand. The foam strippings was easy to remove from the backing and held its shape better than the FrostKing. The ACE brand was more costly than the FrostKing from Lowe's, but the quality is much nicer and is far less irritating to use. Worth...Every...Penny. I bought everything they had in the size that I was using. They will order more and it will be on the truck on Tuesday with regular deliveries and they can say this for certain. Sometimes ya just can't beat the small town businesses.

    So there's my comparison of two different brands of the same products for anyone that is interested. Personally, I find this stuff good to know which is why I pass it on!